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Silver Jews - Early Times

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Artist: Silver Jews

Album: Early Times

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jun. 28, 2012

Early Times compiles Silver Jews’ earliest out-of-print recordings: 1992’s Dime Map of the Reef and 1993’s The Arizona Record, a 7” single and an EP made while Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus was still a regular member of Silver Jews. Really terribly recorded – on a boombox or answering machine, depending on who you ask -- these noisy, haphazard songs are interesting mainly as a document of the development of two of 1990s indie rock’s definitive bands. Inside the murk and chaos, you can hear bits of Silver Jews’ incipient slanted attack on Americana and traces of Pavement’s intelligence and erratic tunefulness.

Early Times is arranged chronologically, with Dime Map’s five songs first, followed by the Arizona Record in its entirety. There are no outtakes, b-sides, live versions or any of the other usual padding that comes with reissues, just the originals. If you have the two records, there is no reason to get this release. But the thing is, hardly anyone does.

So, for most people, this reissue will be the first chance to hear Dime Map’s wobbly, exuberant “Canada,” all strident detuned guitars and bathtub echo. There are little threads of background vocals ghosting in and out of the mix, mercifully given how off-key they are. The notes slide flat and sharp, the drums banging off beat, and yet, there’s something joyful and melodic here that you start to hear five or six times in, an abbreviated tuneful-ness that might, with only slight polishing, stand up to competition from early GBV or Neutral Milk Hotel.

With “The Walnut Falcon,” you begin to hear more of Pavement’s loosely strung guitar lines, an abrasive, tone-bending aura that frames monotone, oddly vulnerable vocal rants about any damned thing at all (in this case about a nature documentary). Noise gets the better of melody in “September 1999,” the vocals buried under a high whine of distortion, the drums just barely kicking under a dirty blanket of hiss. The beat is a little slow, as if even the drummer (Steve West in this case) couldn’t really hear what was going on. “SVM F.T. Troops” is maybe the disc’s most fascinating piece, running on a slackened blues line purloined, maybe, from the Stones’ “Midnight Rambler,” the lyrics rambling in a disheveled way over imagery from the first Iraq War. “Unchained Melody” is even odder, a mesh of sawed-off guitar riffs and haphazard drums, bits of pop floating out of a chaos of disconnected sounds. The song fades out while the singing is still going on, as if everyone had suddenly gotten bored with it.

The Arizona tracks are very slightly more presentable, and here, with both Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich involved, the songs start to sound a lot like Pavement. “Secret Knowledge of Back Roads,” in particular, has that band’s wandering, not-giving-a-fuck charm, the harshness of the guitar lines softened with echo and hiss, and Malkmus murmuring disjointed lyrics. But even “I Love the Rights,” which has Berman singing lead, sounds more like Pavement than Silver Jews. Here is Berman sliding flat and sharp off the melody in a monologue, then shouting over guitar din at Malkmus (who shouts back) as the guitars ratchet up and the song dissolves into chaos. By “West S,” the guitar strings sound so loose and rubber-band-ish that you picture them sliding off the guitar neck, slouching off into dissolution. And yet, even here, as the song falls apart while you listen, little catchy bits of melody pop out of the mess, and Malkmus makes a disconsolate sort of poetry out of stream-of-consciousness rants.

Early Times is not an easy listen, and it’s not going to appeal to everyone, not even to all of Silver Jews and Pavement fans. I was through it seven or eight times before the songs started to make sense to me, before any sort of structure started to emerge out of the mess and hiss. It is very clearly three guys messing around in a room, not at all concerned about fidelity or even, perhaps, about the songs themselves. And yet, these particular guys had, even then, a set of skills, a way of making the offhand memorable, a way of slipping hooks into the murkiest sonic textures. So you listen to Early Times to hear them try out these ideas, to define, even to themselves, how they might make their slack, careless approach into a workable aesthetic. This is not a diamond in the rough as much as it is a piece of carbon that might, with extreme pressure and effort, turn into something someday.

By Jennifer Kelly

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